GSLV could help India’s space agency apply high technology towards economic goals.
On January 6, India’s space agency surmounted a major technological hurdle with the successful launch of its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The GSLV significantly improves upon India’s other space rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The PSLV, which has had 24 successful flights over the past two decades, typically carries one tonne earth-observation satellites to Low Earth Orbit, but it cannot carry larger payloads to higher geostationary orbits. The GSLV, which has the same first two stages as the PSLV, along with additional boosters and a cryogenic third stage (initially imported from Russia but now built in India), can carry heavier payloads. It can lift five tonnes to Low Earth Orbit or two tonnes to geostationary orbit. And while four of the GSLV’s previous seven flights, including one with an Indian-built cryogenic engine, had failed, the latest GSLV launch has been successful. After additional flights to validate its performance, the GSLV could give India significant space capabilities that were previously beyond its reach.
First, the GSLV would reduce India’s dependence on foreign rockets to launch two tonne communications satellites into the required geostationary orbit. In the coming years, India’s space agency plans to launch several such GSATs from aboard the GSLV — it previously relied on European Ariane 5 rockets to launch these satellites. It should still be noted that the GSLV is not powerful enough to launch heavier, three tonne GSATs in future, which could carry a large number of transponders and facilitate a greater volume of communication — these would need foreign launchers until India develops its more powerful GSLV Mark-3.
Second, the GSLV gives India greater flexibility to launch an array of payloads. It allows India to launch not just civilian meteorology and communications satellites but also military communications satellites for its armed forces, and scientific payloads such as a moon rover and lander (the GSLV will carry these as part of India’s second mission to the moon later this decade).
Third, the GSLV gives India the capability to undertake human space flights. It can lift a four to five tonne space capsule carrying astronauts to Low Earth Orbit (India’s space agency has conceptualised such space capsules). Still, human space flight requires a launcher with 100 per cent success rate. Therefore, the GSLV would have to prove its reliability with many consecutive successful flights over the next decade, including at least three flights with unmanned space capsules, before it is used in manned missions.
Overall, the GSLV gives India better lift capabilities than the PSLV, and allows for modest cost and foreign exchange savings. Nevertheless, it has limitations. First, it has low launch rates — India’s government will have to budget greater amounts so that India can launch more satellites and other payloads from aboard the GSLV. Second, the GSLV cannot carry the heaviest payloads. For this, India will have to build the GSLV Mark-3. This rocket will be based on entirely new solid, liquid and cryogenic propulsion systems, and a prototype with some of these systems may fly later this year. Yet the GSLV experience of requiring several flights over a decade before it could finally be launched successfully suggests that the GSLV Mark-3 will take just as long to perfect.
Ultimately, the GSLV would significantly augment India’s space launch capabilities, and the country can make optimal use of these capabilities by allocating each for specific economic, military, and scientific missions. Thus, from around 2015 to 2025, assuming that it launches three to four PSLVs and one to two GSLVs each year, India could launch 40 to 60 satellites and other payloads. These could include five to 10 scientific payloads such as astronomy satellites and missions to the moon and Mars. They could also include five to 10 military reconnaissance and communications satellites — one or two each for the Indian army, navy and air force, and one to two for a nuclear command authority. And some 40 to 50 satellites could cater to various sectors of India’s economy — perhaps 10 for a regional navigational network, 15 to 20 for earth observation, a few for meteorological missions, 10 to 15 for communications and other purposes. Looking beyond 2025, if India can perfect the GSLV and also develop the GSLV Mark-3, it could have reliable space launchers capable of carrying significantly heavier payloads, such as four tonnes to geostationary orbit and eight tonnes to Lower Earth Orbit, and also of supporting human space flight. Such an array of capabilities, performing a mix of missions, will enable India’s space agency to fulfil its original mandate of applying high technology for India’s economic advancement. It will also affirm India’s status as one of the world’s major space powers.
The writer is associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, specialising in international affairs and technology and politics. He is also the author of ‘Containing Missile Proliferation: Strategic Technology, Security Regimes, and International Cooperation in Arms Control’